Buck Rock Tunnel: Portal to the past

Bureau of Land Management
7 min readMay 3, 2021

by Greg Shine, gshine@blm.gov, Greg Shine

High in the Cascade Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, Buck Rock Tunnel sits silently, connecting past to present.

It wasn’t always so.

The railroad tunnel was never fully excavated by its cadre of Chinese workers in the early 1880s, and it never witnessed a single locomotive before it was abandoned in 1887 and largely lost to public memory.

BLM Forester Mark Lawrence outside Buck Rock Tunnel’s east portal, 1971. BLM photo.

Fifty-five years after its rediscovery, it now serves as an important connector, in a way perhaps unfathomable to its designing engineers.

The key? Archaeology.

Today, Buck Rock Tunnel is emerging as an important link in the history of the American West, thanks to the partnership between the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology and the Bureau of Land Management.

Building upon work by BLM and university archaeologists, archaeological investigations in the summer of 2019 through SOULA’s public archaeology field school are revealing clues about the Chinese laborers who built the tunnel, the era they lived in, and their links to other sites within the Chinese diaspora in Oregon.

Chinese laborers working on the O & C Railroad in the 1880s. California State Library image.

With the intention of encouraging settlement and development, Congress in the mid-1800s initiated numerous laws that opened access to public lands in the American West.

Among these were railroad acts, which granted loans and extensive tracts of land to companies in return for railroad development.

An 1898 map showing the completed railway route through Oregon. NYPL image.

The Oregon and California Railroad Act of 1866 was one of these. It channeled the desire of citizens in both states to connect via railroad, and provided an economic incentive to companies to do so.

By 1872, the resulting Oregon and California Railroad — the O & C, for short — had extended the railroad line from Portland to Roseburg, largely through the work of contracted Chinese laborers.

The most daunting stretch lay further south, over the Siskiyou Mountains from Ashland to the California state line. This section — dubbed the Siskiyou Line — was the most expensive as well, due to the need for tunnels and grading to allow steam engine access through the steep mountain passage.

To cross the Siskiyou summit, engineers presented several options in late 1882, and the route selected required at least four tunnels, including the 1,750-foot Buck Rock Tunnel.

That same year, growing anti-Chinese sentiment manifested itself as the first federal Chinese Exclusion Act became law, restricting Chinese laborers from entering the United States.

Despite threats of violence and expulsion, some members of Oregon’s extant Chinese population — which had increased from 3,330 in 1870 to 9,510 in 1880 — carved out a living working on the railroad.

Contracted Chinese laborers began tunnel excavation of the Buck Rock Tunnel in mid-August of 1883, but work ended by February 1884 as the O & C Railroad Company exhausted its capital.

The rail line was ultimately completed to much fanfare in December 1887, but it was a different route that had been surveyed and excavated.

As a result, Buck Rock Tunnel was abandoned, incomplete.

West portal of Buck Rock Tunnel, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

It takes a dedicated hiker to reach the tunnel’s west portal site today.

An intrepid BLM forester, Mark Lawrence, rediscovered the site in 1966, and in 2014 the federal government purchased the surrounding land and added it to the BLM-administered Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Mark Lawrence at the west portal of Buck Rock Tunnel in 1971. BLM photo.

Informational signs and a gravel parking lot now welcome visitors at the trailhead for the 4.5-mile trek to the tunnel.

From the parking lot, a steep climb along a twentieth century logging road through a canopy of oaks — and, as the elevation increases, conifers — offers cross-canyon glimpses of the I-5 corridor and the rail line ultimately completed.

The tunnel’s west portal sits at about 4,000 feet above sea level, almost hidden amongst shrubs and maples.

Chelsea Rose (right) and Lisa Rice (second from right) address the archaeology field school students. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

On day two of the 2019 archaeology field school, faculty and students assembled below the west portal.

Midmorning, the director of the field school, Chelsea Rose, guided students through pedestrian surveys, where students methodically walked predetermined areas in search of above-ground artifacts.

Soon after, Lisa Rice, a BLM archaeologist, instructed the students in the basics of metal detection survey, another core skill for students studying the archaeology of this era.

Below the tunnel, the modern terrain complicates any understanding of the historic footprint; something that Rose is quick to point out.

“It took me eight times up this mountain to start to kind of wrap my head around the archaeological resources out here, because it’s an entire mountain archaeological site. That’s not common,” she said.

BLM Archaeologist Lisa Rice giving metal detection instruction, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

To help, Rose encourages the students to “erase out the distractions of the modern roadways and the logging features, which your mind thinks, ‘Ooh, here’s a road, here’s a path.’ They’re really irrelevant to the story we’re looking at.”

Instead, she proffers recent research — into hay distribution.

“One of the things I realized in doing all this research was that hay for horses was a really big deal because the horses were really the big muscle for this operation,” she explained, and she subsequently tracked the railroad company’s extensive networks to bring hay to the site.

“So, following that to where a lot of the farmers were, we figured out where people were coming in, which helped us kind of shift the way we were thinking about the site.”

(Left) Square nail found by archaeology field school students, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine. (Right) Historic whiskey bottle found by archaeology field school students, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

Rose’s goal is to use these and future finds to piece together the life of a Chinese railroad worker in the Siskiyou Mountains.

As she points out, the artifacts found onsite not only help tell the story of the Buck Rock site, but also inform the larger story of Chinese laborers in rural Oregon.

Rural areas, Rose explained, are “where the Chinese history has been so lost, because there are no descendant communities associated with any of these places, even though in the early days there were large numbers of Chinese immigrants living in Jackson County, Josephine County, and Grant County.”

Lisa Rice displays an artifact found during the archaeology field school metal detection exercise on July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

Her interest in this big picture has, in part, resulted in the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project: What she describes as a multi-agency project partnership that links federal and state agencies, museums, and other groups to “share resources and to focus on the study of the Chinese history in Oregon.”

Toward that end, the 2019 field school investigated more than Buck Rock Tunnel, adding John Day’s historic Chinatown, Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, and several historic Chinese mining camp sites in the Malheur National Forest to their syllabus.

“One of the things I love about this field school is they’re not only getting introduced to the entire range of archaeological techniques from pedestrian survey to testing to digging big excavation units, mapping, all those kinds of things, but they’re also getting a sense of rural Chinatowns, Chinese and the railroad, Chinese and mining,” she said. “So it’s going to be a nice, more holistic experience on this topic.”

After acquisition of the property in 2014, BLM staff began studying Buck Rock Tunnel and quickly recognized the opportunities for public connection.

A BLM archaeologist conducts a LiDAR scan of Buck Rock Tunnel’s west portal, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

“Our natural response was ‘Let’s make it where the public can get to it. Let’s let the public know what Buck Rock Tunnel was and the history associated with it,’” Rice said.

In the years since, she has emerged as Buck Rock Tunnel’s connecting engineer — in a metaphorical sense.

Rice crafted an assistance agreement with SOU that brought Rose aboard, supported an initial study and analysis of the site’s history (available to the public as Targeted Class I Existing Information Inventory of the Buck Rock Tunnel), and helped fund the archaeology field school.

Working with BLM colleagues, she helped establish a parking area and information signs at a de facto trailhead for the site. She has also given numerous talks in neighboring communities and has led many onsite walks.

Rice is already planning the next assistance agreement, with visions of broadening it to include Buck Rock Tunnel and other similar sites on public lands in the area.

At Rose’s suggestion, she has also linked-in the nonprofit Friends of Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, helping craft a series of guided hikes to Buck Rock Tunnel — complete with historical maps, artifacts, and project updates that increase public understanding of the site’s history and foster support for its future.

Rose and Rice with members of the 2019 archaeology field school at Buck Rock Tunnel trailhead, July 2, 2019. BLM photo by Greg Shine.

Today, 135 years after its construction ceased, Buck Rock Tunnel functions as a portal to the past.

Although never completed as a nineteenth century railway tunnel, it now actively connects networks of public agencies, universities, museums, and communities.

It does so by linking the lives of the Chinese laborers who first blasted open its east and west portals in 1883 to the histories of the Rogue Valley, to the Chinese diaspora in Oregon, and to the history of the American West.

All thanks to archaeology — and agents like Rose and Rice.

— Access more photos from Buck Rock Tunnel: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmEZRwoi



Bureau of Land Management

The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals.